There is something going wrong with social media. The evidence is clear: from the recent boycott of the UK sports world at a lack of action against racism, to the ongoing spread of disinformation during elections – and that’s just from the past few weeks.
Individual platforms’ solutions are varied and often dependent on circumstance or political views. Facebook, the most criticised company, has bet its chips on its Oversight Board, which recently made its most significant decision to date, maintaining Donald Trump’s ongoing ban from the platform.
Dubbed the social media giant’s ‘Supreme Court’, it comprises twenty high-profile individuals from political and academic spheres, representing an attempt to shift the responsibility of content moderation to an independent jury. If operating effectively, it would provide impartial judgements, giving Facebook greater legitimacy in carrying out a more rigorous disciplinary process.
Yet, barely a year since announced, it is being written off by some as a cynical attempt at Facebook PR, designed to head off direct state interference. The critics point to the influence the business had over picking its members, that it is funded by the company and makes judgements based on its rules. The principle behind it also has complications – Facebook is not a Government no matter what Mark Zuckerberg may believe, and the idea that twenty un-elected officials have such control over discourse seems anti-democratic at best and plutocratic at worst.
But if not the Oversight Board, then what is the way forward? In the UK some fear the proposed regulation of online harms by Ofcom amounts to Government censorship – as is being alleged in Myanmar. Others have simply called the legislation weak and have attacked it for outsourcing supervision to Silicon Valley.
A more dramatic measure would be to oblige users to provide identification before registration. The link between disinformation and anonymity is well proven through studies such as Valent Projects’ on the spread of 5G conspiracy theories. However, this raises issues around freedom of speech, as well as the right to access platforms, and discourages whistleblowers who may require anonymity.
Coming to a consensus internationally, as Hillary Clinton recently called for, in theory seems like the optimal way forward. However, in practice it feels grossly optimistic given the fraught nature of international diplomacy, where even seating arrangements can cause a major incident. Clearly this debate won’t be resolved anytime soon and there has to be an acknowledgement that there is no perfect solution; otherwise – with Trump’s Facebook ban set to be reviewed again in six months – discourse will not only continue, but intensify.
Matthew Evans is an account executive at Camargue